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An rud bhios na do bhroin, cha bhi e na do thiomhnadh
"That which you have wasted will not be there for future generations"

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Guest Column, September 2003

David Lane is the Executive Director of the T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation, an environmental group based in British Columbia dedicated to protecting wild fish and fish habitat. The Foundation has been educating the public on the environmental impacts from salmon farming since farms first began appearing on the coast in the early 1980s. The Foundation is working on the issue with other groups under the banner of the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform (CAAR).

Salmon Farms are no Economic Saviour

David Lane on the scant economic benefits of the aquaculture industry.

The Pacific coast of Canada and the coast of Scotland may be thousands of kilometres apart, but the impacts from salmon farming are all too similar.

On a trip to Scotland in July I was amazed to see the same fish farm company signs dotting the coastline. In fact, the four largest multinational fish farming companies operating in British Columbia all operate in Scotland as well.

No wonder we are faced with the same corporate denial of the very real environmental damage being done to both coasts.

At the same time that salmon farm companies deny or downplay environmental threats, they argue that the economic benefits and jobs created for coastal communities make up for the negatives.

That myth was blown apart last month by a local economic think-tank, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). In a hard-hitting report entitled Fishy Business: The economics of salmon farming in British Columbia, researcher Dale Marshall concludes that salmon farming actually provides limited economic benefits while imposing significant ecological and economic risks.

Sports fishing and marine tourism employ more than four times as many people as the salmon farming industry in British Columbia, and thousands more work in commercial salmon fisheries or in wild salmon processing plants.

These coastal jobs are all threatened if wild salmon stocks are harmed by sea lice, disease and escaped salmon from salmon farms.

This fact was made abundantly clear when wild pink salmon runs collapsed in an area with the highest density of salmon farms on the British Columbia coast. Scientists independent from government and the salmon farm industry say the evidence points to sea lice from salmon farms killing off out-migrating juvenile wild salmon. Three and a half million wild salmon disappeared from that one area. What had been a healthy local commercial salmon fishery catching upwards of one million fish, generating millions of dollars for the coastal economy, was suddenly gone. Wild pink salmon fishing in that region has been shut down, probably for years to come.

Coastal aboriginal nations rely heavily on wild salmon fishing for food and ceremonial use. The economic benefits can hardly be calculated, as this has been the traditional livelihood and sustenance for coastal aboriginal people for centuries. Aboriginal groups say other seafood gathering has been greatly affected by salmon farm waste, particularly clams and other shellfish.

The overall contribution of salmon farming to coastal economies measured in GDP is small compared to existing marine-based industries, says Marshall. Profits are drained off to the corporate headquarters of the big multinational corporations that monopolize the salmon farming sector in British Columbia, with head offices in Norway and the Netherlands.

The CCPA report predicts that future job creation in salmon farming will be modest or non-existent. During the 1990s, the British Columbia salmon farming industry tripled its production without any increase in jobs. In Norway, production doubled from 1994 to 2000, while decreasing employment by 4 percent. Norway’s industry expanded production tenfold between 1985 and 2000 while the number of jobs declined by 20 percent.

Fish farm companies internationally are posting record losses and their subsidiaries in British Columbia are doing no better. In fact, they may be doing worse given the millions of dollars in losses they are facing from huge fish die-offs from disease outbreaks. More than 20 percent of the fish farms on our coast were hit with a deadly virus, infectious hematopoietic necrosis, or IHN. One company, now operating under the new name Mainstream, which also operates in Scotland, lost 2.4 million fish to IHN.

Environmental groups here are convinced that sea lice and disease from salmon farms pose a huge and imminent threat to wild salmon stocks, with the biggest threat being to vulnerable juvenile wild salmon as they start their perilous journey to the North Pacific.

The stakes are high indeed. What is unique about British Columbia, compared to other areas around the globe with salmon farms, is that we still have huge, generally healthy wild salmon runs. Commercial salmon fisheries have been radically changed in recent years to reduce the number of fish boats, significantly reduce the rate of harvest and greatly increase the number of salmon returning to river spawning grounds.

Some of our wild salmon stocks are in trouble, and special conservation efforts are needed. But the great majority of salmon runs are healthy and abundant. An average of 40 million wild salmon return to the British Columbia coast each year, with millions migrating up our largest river systems.

Impacts from sea lice, disease, pollution and escapes will continue as long as salmon are farmed in open net cages. Alternatives exist, with land-based or ocean-based closed contained farm technologies that pose almost no environmental impact, according to the CCPA report.

Public opinion in British Columbia has moved strongly towards wild salmon protection and a consumer backlash against farmed salmon is mounting. This trend is likely to spread to the United States and Europe.

Wild salmon are a public resource and a cultural icon that must not be sacrificed for the largely illusory benefits from salmon aquaculture.

The full CCPA report can be found on the CCPA website at http://www.policyalternatives.ca